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The Ghost’s Story

by Rod Griffiths

Long ago, in the days when there were still fish in the oceans and cars on the roads, there lived a woman who was not afraid of governments…

I love listening to mothers telling stories to their kids, and especially that line about governments.

“What is a government, mummy?”

I’ve heard that question so many times, like this kid here, her skin glowing green at the end of a sunny day, flush with all that photosynthetic energy ready to be accumulated into growth as she sleeps.

“I’m not really certain, my love,” says her mother. “I’m sure they were fearful things and the ghost woman was very brave to resist them.”

“Were the cars and the fish scary, too?’

“Not the fish, love. You know about fish.”

I’m kind of embarrassed to admit that some of the story doesn’t make much sense any more, but that’s not the mother’s fault; parts of it are embedded in her DNA, because way back at the new beginning, that was the only thing we could use to keep records.

“Mummy, what are cars?”

Oh, I do feel sorry for the poor woman; even I can hardly remember why the cars are in the story. Back then, when us ghosts started to rebuild the world, there were cars, although I only remember them broken, stationary and rusting, along with the ghosts of cars. I remember the car ghosts.

The extinction events killed everything, except microbes, some trees and a few ghosts. It turns out that if you kill a human at exactly the right moment – that once-in-a-million instant between one breath and the next, when their mind is on exactly the right wavelength, you end up splitting the human into a dead body and a ghost. Despite the rarity of those moments, there were some ghosts before the great extinction; certainly enough to fill a few stories and establish the mythology, but after that day, there were thousands and thousands. I may be exaggerating about one in a million; maybe there were three or four in a million.

Imagine for a moment an empty world and a few thousand ghosts – those hardly-any-in-a-million chances – left from the nine billion of Earth’s population. For a while, we human ghosts kept our heads down, we talked and we learnt together how to be the best ghosts we could be, and all around us everything rotted away. The ghosts of cars roared around on what was left of the roads, but they gradually died out and the trees and the microbes took over the world. It took a while before we realised that death was built into the lives of the car ghosts – planned obsolescence, the designers used to call it, and it was built into the ghosts as well. Why they stayed in the stories I don’t know, maybe some of us missed our cars.

Human ghosts like me didn’t die or disappear because our very nature is to remain, to be what’s left after death. But it was boring. There was absolutely nothing to do. Ghosts are supposed to haunt and, as far as I can tell, haunting is probably great fun, but all we had available was microbes and trees.

You can’t haunt a tree and, believe me, I’ve tried. Maybe it knows you are there; maybe it doesn’t, but what can a tree do? Some of them grow a bit quicker, or lean one way, but it takes a year to see any difference. You’d have to be a very patient ghost. The average microbe on the other hand is very susceptible to haunting. Getting them to do what we wanted and work together was easy. First we made worms. That was simple, stick one microbe to the next, and the next, and the next; but it took forever to find the trick of absorbing calcium and turning it into bones.

We had to scour the world to find expert ghosts, ones that could remember some biochemistry. It took hundreds and hundreds of years, but it gave us something to do. It’s no joke trying to work on chemistry and DNA sequences and that sort of detailed stuff when you can’t write anything down, until it dawned on us that DNA had invented itself for record keeping.

At first, the worms had the hard stuff on the outside, but if you can get a soft worm to swallow a hard worm then suddenly you have a skeleton on the inside. It sounds like a simple trick, and it is – once you know it has to be done in shallow water. At the edge of the sea is best. I won’t waste time telling you that ghosts find swimming hard. Deep water is hopeless and don’t even think about rivers because you get swept along.

So, give or take a million years or so, we managed to make fish and eventually to get them out of the water and onto dry land.

Enough with the explaining, I should be listening to the story, and I do love the next bit.

“Mummy, why were there dinosaurs?” That soft voice purring through her olive lips, trying not to smile, trying to look innocent although she knows the answer and the mum knows she knows.

That question always comes up sooner or later and every adult has their own answer, but the truth is that by the time we’d managed to make a few decent animals the trees had grown everywhere. Apart from the beaches, most of the world was covered in thick forest. It was impenetrable, even for a ghost, until someone had the idea of making really big animals, huge animals, which could crash their way through all that wood. It took a while to work out the genetic code to make our animals grow big enough, and while we were congratulating ourselves on that, the whole thing got out of hand. That was another lesson we learnt; but getting rid of dinosaurs is not simple. Someone did remember that last time they were killed by a meteor strike, but ghosts can’t grab a meteor out of the sky. It took a huge effort from a bunch of us working together to get the dinosaurs to dig down far enough to set off a few volcanoes.

Did we overdo it? Well yes, of course we did; with all that fire and ash we almost killed everything. We had to rapidly evolve some of the small dinosaurs into birds to get above the clouds to keep life going.

After that we had to start all over again with the land animals. We were lucky in a way because the cooling from shutting out the sun made an ice age. The cold doesn’t bother ghosts and it did mean the snow washed the dirt out of the air and put a lot of nutrients into the sea. Huge glaciers on the land had another useful side effect, they used so much water that the sea level dropped and we had some big beaches to work on. We trained the birds to eat the tree seeds and that kept the vegetation down so that we didn’t get overrun with forests again.

“I wish I’d seen a dinosaur,” said the little girl.

“You wouldn’t, really. They were very big and scary.”

“Scary like governments?”

“About the same, I think, from what the ghosts tell us. They had huge mouths and enormous appetites and if they didn’t eat you they might crush you with their feet or swipe you half way to the moon with their tails. I think governments were like that, too.”

The little girl sat up in bed and clutched her mother’s arm, her green skin becoming grey for a moment.

I imagine you are itching to ask about the green skin – I’m really proud of that idea. We gave our new humans green skin so they could photosynthesise sugar from sunlight. We solved racism in one go. It was better than that really because it took away pressure on the food system. No need for agro-chemicals – amazing name that, I mean they did cause aggro didn’t they, but we got rid of all that in the new world.

“Don’t worry, dear, we don’t have governments or dinosaurs now.”

The child ran her hand along her mother’s arm, gently entwining their fingers, the bright skin of the child looking like green shoots rising between the grey knuckles of the adult.

The child licked her mother’s hand.

“Not too much, my love.”

“But the lichens taste nice.”

“You don’t need them until you’ve grown some more.”

I should have mentioned the lichens, a clever bit of symbiosis that; they grow on the adults’ skin like grey fuzz. It looks very elegant, but really the lichens block the sun and slow up the photosynthesis, like living sun block.

“If I don’t get any lichens, will I grow as big as a dinosaur?”

“No, love – just tall enough to bang your head on the ceiling.”

I can feel the mother shutting off this line of questions; she knows it’s taking her into areas she’d rather not go – mathematics, for instance. She can’t remember the formulas, but volume increases with the cube of the radius and skin area with the square. Of course humans aren’t spheres, but that’s close enough. There comes a point where the energy from photosynthesis can’t keep up with the volume of the body, somewhere around 9ft tall, so she’s right about the ceiling.

“The ghosts would stop me growing too tall, wouldn’t they?”

Oh, that’s a sharp question, and she’s only six. I wouldn’t have expected that for another five years. This one is worth watching, but right now I want to hear what the mother says. I edge closer, keeping in the shadows, but making sure I catch every nuance.

“No, my love,” she says, taking the girl’s hand in hers. “It’s not like that. We have to look after ourselves; the ghosts have got other things to do, we can’t expect them to be rushing around looking after ninnies that don’t take care of themselves.” She pauses for a moment and smiles, “especially ones that won’t go to sleep when it’s bed time.” She kisses her daughter’s hand and tucks the sheets around her. “Sleep tight.”

Was that the answer I was hoping for? Close enough, I think. We are ghosts, and we were trying to make a better world, but we decided long ago that we did not want to be gods. Omnipotence is the last thing the world needs. None of us get everything right and nothing we do lasts forever.

Don’t get me wrong; the world we ended up with has turned out OK. We are proud of what we’ve achieved. In fact, some might call it intelligent design, but we know that we lurched from one crisis to the next and were making it up as we went along.

We did learn one lesson. When everyone works together and there is too much agreement, that’s when the troubles begin. That’s why we kept that line about governments in the stories. We wanted the new humans to be suspicious of too much power in one place. Of course, like everything else, it didn’t work out exactly right because none of them know what a government was.

The lights turn off and the child sleeps. I watch the mother walk away and smile to myself. I can rest easy for a while because the story is still holding together. It’s still doing its job and the star of the story is still a woman; that bit is important.